Most dog aggressive dogs have fear-based aggression. Please pay attention to the word ‘most’; not all dogs are fear aggressive. But for those dogs, the question is how did they become fearful? It becomes the chicken and egg riddle. Were they always scared of novel stimuli, and then they became fearful of dogs, or were they always fearful of dogs and then became aggressive toward strange dogs? Did the old-seated problem become more severe with experience, or was it something entirely new?
For these dogs, their memory did two things for them. It quickly recorded where they were, who they were with, and all other details associated with the bad event. These details are all stored consciously by the hippo campus. On a deeper level, the amygdala records the sights, sounds and other sensory perceptions, and remembers all of those as new signs of dangers. From that point on, your fearful dog when seeing those sights, sounds and perceptions will have the full surges of the initial fear, from that first scary moment. These new stimuli that he has learned have become full warning beacons to tell him that danger is impending – meaning that your fearful dog will now have more reasons to be fearful.
James McGauch, of the University of California at Irvine, discovered that if he gave rats a shot of adrenaline after they learned something, they remembered it better. Adrenaline beforehand didn’t work. Only when given afterwards did it boost memory. McGaugh taught us that when your dog is put into a situation where he becomes fearful, the memories gained in that moment will be remembered quicker than a previous memory of happiness in that same situation. For example, if you are walking down a trail, enjoying a nice peaceful afternoon with your dog when suddenly two husky crosses appear from the trees and attack your dog. There was no warning, in fact, you hadn’t even seen the dogs before it was too late. The fight ends, your dog is soggy post-attack, but fine. According to McGaugh, your dog will remember the location of the trees where it happened, and they will become new fearful stimuli for him. Even though you have walked by these trees one hundred and times prior to this event, and you sat under them and had a wonderful picnics every year on your dog’s previous six birthdays, your dog will now remember these trees as a dangerous and fearful place.
The dog attack has over-ruled the previous happy memories. If you have a more suspicious dog, they may generalize the attack to all trees, and never relax on walks where many trees are present. The set trees are just one example here.
Whenever your dog becomes adrenalized, he is going to remember what put him there,- what clue did he see just before the attack that might save him in future fights – and in this case the bad dogs came from the trees. Your trees have become a counter-conditioned cue to get your dog in an adrenalized state, ready for an attack. Your dog knows that when he saw trees, he got scared because a bad thing happened.
What actually happens within the body for this to take place? It is Pavlov, and his reflexive conditioning, at its most harmful. A stimulus associated with a frightening event, in this case trees, releases a neurotransmitter into the amygdala, which then in turn draws calcium into the cell. A chain of events continue as communication occurs from one cell to another, and turn on the genes that make other proteins, which then return to the synapse that saw the trees. This process happens, whether wanted or not, making it that much harder to change.
This new neural pathway places a bookmark of the memory, for when these trees are encountered again. In future whenever your dog sees that set of trees, or any trees that look similar to the set from the attack, the synapse will come alive and the cell will fire. The scary part is the more that memory becomes rehearsed, the stronger it becomes (those darned trodden-down pathways again). Through experience, our dogs learn what to fear. And with rehearsal, they will not forget the old. No, we could not be that lucky. Instead they will add in the new and they build their fear repertoire.
“Scientists in Munich have found that mice bred without a certain brain system (cannabinoid) respond differently to trauma than normal mice. If normal mice are given a shock when they hear a bell, they soon learn to fear the bell, anticipating the shock: when the shock is removed, they learn the bell is harmless. But Lutz’s frightened mice stay scared long after the shock stops. They can’t seem to forget the trauma even when the environment changes and safety reigns”.
Lutz explains that how prone one is to fear, and how long they will remain afraid afterwards may both be genetic. In NIH (National Institute of Health) studies people shown fearful faces felt more anxious, and had more activity in their amygdala, if they happened to possess a certain variant of a gene controlling serotonin. Is it a stretch, when we have proven this difference in both mice and humans, to assume that dogs can have the same?
Generalization of Fears
We now know that if you have something good that needs to be generalized, it takes an eternity of training for that to happen. But, when it is something bad that we do not want to generalize, it happens quickly.
Another experiment was performed, proving just this. This experiment was performed by Watson and Rayner, long before the days that Ethics Committees governed what was fair, and what was not. This experiment involved a bubbling, happy baby of eleven months old who rarely cried, called Little Albert. Albert was selected for his happy temperament.
Before long, Watson and Rayner found that loud noises startled little Albert and decided to do some reflexive conditioning. And, after three pairings of a loud sound, Albert would show a fear response and begin crying. Albert appeared unconcerned about all other aspects of his environment, and was only concerned with the loud sound. Albert got to see animals and objects when he was not crying; a white rat, a rabbit, a dog, a monkey, toys, and a burning newspaper. Albert tried to reach for, or approach each of these items.
Watson and Rayner decided to make Albert have a fearful response to the white rat.
They took the rat from the basket and showed it to little Albert. Albert reached for it, and just as his hand almost touched the rat, they struck a metal bar which made a sharp sound. Albert jumped forward in an agitated manner and buried his head into the mattress that he was sitting on, however, he did not cry. He tried to touch the rat again and once his hand was close, the bar was struck again. Albert jumped suddenly, fell forward, and whimpered.
A week later Albert was shown the rat again, with no loud sound. While Albert looked at it, he did not reach for it this time. The rat was moved closer and began to nose at Albert’s hand. He pulled his hand away. He began to reach for the rat’s head, but before he made contact, quickly withdrew his finger.
Again, there were three more pairings of rat, and the loud sound. Again, they presented the rat alone, and little Albert began to cry, and crawled away quickly. The rat had now become a fear-eliciting stimulus. Further tests were then done to see the effects of generalization with this fear.
The experimenters showed Albert a rabbit. He leaned far away, whimpered, and then burst into tears. Next they presented a dog – which did not produce a huge reaction. Next was a fur coat, placed on either side of the dog. Albert quickly turned and moved away from the object.
The scientist had succeeded and created a phobia to all things resembling the rat.
The same can happen with dogs. First, it might be white poodles that your dog is scared of. Then, it will become all white dogs, then all small dogs in addition to all white dogs, then all dogs, then, well, at that point fear becomes scary.
If unstopped, fear can have no boundaries of its own, and a simple walk down the street can become something that your dog, and probably you too, will dread. Some dogs are terrified of any strange stimuli or change to their environment, and it all started with one object, a lack of guidance at that moment, and ballooned from there.
Please ponder the wise words of Diane Ackerman. “The gold of memory may be panned from experience, but it’s washed in the acids of emotion, which etch the deepest memories.”
1633 Kangaroo Road, Victoria, BC V9C 4C6
The Naughty Dogge is a dog training school located in Victoria, BC. We truly are dog-trainers and competitors, bringing out the best in any dog, regardless of breed and issues. That means we teach competitive agility, Competition Obedience, Retrain Dog Aggressive Dogs, Teach Puppy Classes and Pet Dogs to be perfect citizens, and work with behaviour problems. There is probably not an issue that we haven””””t retrained! This newsletter is copyright to Monique Anstee, May 2011 and may be reprinted with full credit given to Monique Anstee at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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